Calling the U.N.'s bluff

Sierra Leone: Tyrant in a small place mocks peacekeeping and gets away with it.

May 10, 2000

ANARCHY in Sierra Leone is a threat to larger Africa. By taking hundreds of United Nations peacekeeping troops hostage, ragtag rebels supporting Foday Sankoh have undermined the chief tool the world community and African leaders have devised for dispute resolution on the continent.

Peacekeepers come in after peace is agreed, to maintain its terms and create confidence. Mr. Sankoh agreed last July to quit insurrection and join the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. He just didn't mean it.

The troops sent to police the accord, mostly Zambians, were lightly trained and not expecting war. Mr. Sankoh's followers had little difficulty disarming many, stealing their vehicles and mowing down protesting civilians.

Sierra Leone is a tiny place of little consequence to the wider world. It was founded after the American Revolution by slaves who fought for the king in return for freedom and then became political refugees in Nova Scotia. Funded by English abolitionists, they provided the model for Liberia's settlement next door, decades later.

The social breakdown in the two countries is similar. Rebellion has all but destroyed Sierra Leone, a British colony before independence in 1961. After the debacle, few African and Asian countries will offer peacekeepers to the larger operation the United Nations is planning in the Congo.

The best response in Sierra Leone would be a show of force, including the capability and will to defeat Mr. Sankoh. The United States should offer logistical support. So far, the will is not apparent.

A petty tyrant has called the world community's bluff, and is getting away with it.

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